A time for courage

These are my own thoughts, written on time away from work.

Some years ago I sat in a planning meeting with my colleagues—we all worked for a preK-12 school division in Virginia—and we were discussing the set of core values we would use in our next strategic plan. We’d done some work to identify our own values and our boss sifted through that data and at that meeting made a proposal.

“I got something here, tell me what you think.”

We listened.

“ECHO.” He used some grandiose hand gestures as he said the word. He repeated it, more softly. Echo. “Excellence, creativity, honor, and optimism. ECHO! It will be so easy to remember because it spells a word, and it also means these are values we want to hear echoed throughout our community. What do you all think?”

The room erupted into chatter. I considered the values myself. I couldn’t argue with any of them, but something was missing. Our leader’s drive to try new things, to spur innovation, and new ways of thinking about challenges was missing. Creativity related to some of that, but there was still something missing.

I looked through a set of values again then raised my hand.

“What about courage?”


“Yeah, the need, the call to raise your hand when it’s uncomfortable, the desire to take this organization into bold new directions, the courage to speak when something isn’t right, the entrepreneurial American spirit that requires people to take chances, to bank on their ideas? I think that has a place in this organization.”

The first reaction? “Then it messes up ECHO. We’d have ECCHO,” someone said, coughing on the alliteration of two Cs. More conversation ensued.

A principal looked over at me, then pronounced so all could hear, “I like it, I really like courage.”

As I watched our leader at the front of the room at a podium, I saw nodding heads in front of me.

A week later ECCHO was put to rest and we moved onto other things.

Right now a lot is going on outside around us. It’s fair to point out that the riots and curfews are symptoms of living in larger cities, but the anger at a never-ending plight of injustice is felt everywhere. Maybe not by you, but it’s being felt by those around you, if you too don’t feel you have a stake in these events. Our world is being asked to adapt—and we’re not doing it very well—to the spread of a virus that is really making an impact on lives. People who get the so-called coronavirus can get seriously ill; some get complications, and some people unfortunately die. I’ll be honest, I’m scared of getting it. I don’t know how well my body would fight it. And then on top of this, yet another example of oppression has taken place in our country, George Floyd was arrested and died under the knee of a police officer who ignored his pleas for help.

This time last year we were concerned about the growing threat of gun violence.

Maybe it’s easier to point out the bad things around us, but I do so not because it’s easy, but because they aren’t right.

Last night the talk show host Jimmy Fallon spoke about the fact he wore blackface on Saturday Night Live some years ago to get a laugh. Whether or not the skit was funny at the time (I admittedly haven’t watched it nor care to), he was called out, and he was guided to “stay quiet” about the situation, to let it blow over. But Fallon instead chose to open up about it, admitting he really didn’t know where to start, but that he wanted to do something, that he didn’t like what has been going on. These riots cause us to stop and consider how we can make the world a better place. The looting and brutality of police trying to keep order are unfortunately side effects of this movement to protest, and they distract from the peacefully-designed demonstrations that have been taking place since the death of George Floyd.

Fallon invited on the current president of the NAACP to discuss the issues and one of the words that stuck in the air for me was “courage.” Derrick Johnson said that it takes courage to speak out, to speak up, and to join a movement.

The thing that’s sometimes hard for people to remember is that race—and more specifically the color of one’s skin—is a simplistic and convenient way to see difference. To be “white” is more than how much pigment is in my skin, just the same as to be “Asian,” or “Black” or “Latino” is. It is but one way to identify me, as imperfect as that may be. The myriad labels we affix to ourselves tell a richer story, including those that reveal our religious beliefs, our sexual orientation, our social class, our political views, or whatever else. There are aspects of my whiteness that I don’t even notice, but they are the things that color my view of the world. In most simplistic terms, they help me see how I am different from others, including people of color, but it’s not the color of my skin. While we may all be American to apply yet another label, there are cultural and historical elements that color our lives.

And when we talk about diversity, it should be about finding the courage to try and see the world without those lenses over our eyes. To understand others, in helping ourselves to develop meaningful relationships with others, requires us to open our minds toward seeing the myriad gifts we each possess. It asks of us to put our own core beliefs on the shelf as we consider the beliefs of others. All of this takes time, but let’s not make that the excuse. We all have the time, it’s always ongoing. What we don’t always make the time for is that discomfort we feel when we surround ourselves in new situations, to confront new ideas, to try and work with others unlike us toward common goals.

I think it does take #courage. I’m being honest. It doesn’t matter who you are, to speak up, to speak out, to demand better, to enter that friction with conviction, takes courage.

And if yesterday wasn’t convenient, the whole world is watching now. I can’t think of a better time to stand up for equity and sustained change.

Incidentally, the vision of our school division is to inspire the next generation to make a positive impact. Right now that will take all the courage we can muster.